Popular designer made working women stylish

Benchmark businesswoman had an eye for sensible comfort

Fashion Liz Claiborne//1929 - 2007

June 28, 2007|By Tanika White | Tanika White,Sun reporter

Liz Claiborne, who was one of the first designers to dress the American working woman and built a vast business using her name as a recognizable brand, died Tuesday at New York Presbyterian Hospital from cancer.

She was 78. Her personal assistant, Gwen Satterfield, reported her death yesterday.

Ms. Claiborne, who began her career in New York in 1950, was one of the most recognizable names in fashion in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly among women who wanted quality, career-appropriate clothing and style, too.

Ms. Claiborne and her husband, Arthur Ortenberg, founded Liz Claiborne Inc. in 1976. The company went public in 1981 and later added men's apparel and cosmetics. Ms. Claiborne retired from day-to-day operations in 1989.

When Ms. Claiborne started her fashion label, women were increasingly entering the work force but had few options for dressing. Suits were popular but adapted mainly from men's styles. Weekend wear was "fussier" and more "white glove" than the new career-woman desired, fashion observers said.

"She made clothes that women both wore to work and to enjoy themselves," said Stan Herman, who was president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America for 16 years, until he turned the organization over to Diane von Furstenberg last year. "She was all about dressing people for the day in a way that made them feel comfortable - not necessarily pushing the envelope - but comfortable, sensible dressing that I think had a great sense of fashion to it."

Ms. Claiborne was born Elisabeth Claiborne in Brussels, Belgium, to American parents from New Orleans, according to Current Biography. Her father was a banker who instilled in his daughter a love of art and aesthetics; her mother taught her to sew at an early age.

Ms. Claiborne never graduated high school, but after studying fine arts in Europe, she began work in the Seventh Avenue garment district. At age 21, she became a sketcher and a fit model.

She assisted numerous sportswear designers before breaking out on her own, moving into the Bryant Park building in midtown Manhattan where she eventually met and befriended Mr. Herman.

"She was on the fifth floor; I was on the eighth floor," Mr. Herman said. "She eventually took over the sixth floor, and then the seventh floor, and finally she had to move out of the building because the business just blew out."

By 1985, Ms. Claiborne's was the first company founded by a woman to be listed in the Fortune 500, according to her Web site - and is now a nearly $5 billion public company.

Several well-known labels fall under the Liz Claiborne Inc. umbrella, including Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Enyce, Laundry by Shelli Segal and Lucky Brand Jeans. Her company holds the exclusive license to produce and sell men's and women's collections of DKNY Jeans, as well as the license to produce jewelry under the Kenneth Cole New York and Reaction Kenneth Cole brand names.

Bill McComb, chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., called Ms. Claiborne an "inspirational woman who revolutionized the fashion industry 30 years ago."

Ms. Claiborne had great success with her casual separates - blouses, cowl-neck sweaters, dresses, skirts and jackets - that were intended to be mixed and matched. The versatile clothes were relatively affordable, Mr. Herman says, making them extremely popular with women.

"She really got the needs of the career woman," said Joanne Arbuckle, dean of the School of Art and Design at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. "Her career clothes were classic enough that they met the needs of this group. Yet they had a freshness and a real style. Everything was beautifully coordinated."

Mr. Herman, who still works out of the same West 40th Street office, said Ms. Claiborne "changed the way people perceived clothing."

"She was a benchmark designer," he said. "She made very accessible clothing that fit people. She understood that lifestyles had changed, that women's bodies had changed. ... She became the all-American designer."

A quintessential businesswoman, Ms. Claiborne made herself a household name by then branching out into other ventures, such as fragrances, accessories and menswear.

"She brought fashion to the masses," said Ray Mitchener, buyer and manager of Ruth Shaw in Cross Keys. "She was one of the first pioneers who developed branding, making hers a reasonably recognizable name for both men and women. You hear the name Liz Claiborne or Valentino or Calvin Klein ... and it gives you instant credibility."

Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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